It happens slowly, irreparably, slyly. What was the title of that song? Killing me softly. That’s how freedoms are killed – for the most.
I am not talking about the big, bad, repressive regimes that everyone is so prompt to condemn. It’s not about water-hosing protesters or tear-gassing demonstrations or pellet-gunning stone pelters at eye-height. The public has strong reactions against these things – except for the latter, actually: in that case, if you excuse me a bad pun, people easily turn a blind eye because it is not really OK to mess with the world’s largest democracy (and a huge exploitable financial market). I am not even talking about brave women facing anti-riots cops or couples kissing passionately in front of burning barricades as if expecting the Apocalypse. These make good photos. They are also too much in our face and the media and public opinion are quick to respond. People call these instances brutal and unacceptable, they require specific hashtags and swift online mobilisations and collective changing of Facebook profile pictures in solidarity. Continue reading “Liberticide”
At the end, here is my desperate search for the beginnings of memories. I turn first to emails but I cannot find a beginning in these emails, even the very first one is already in medias res. I have now searched my emails for all correspondences and they stretch from Berkeley to Chicago to Madison to Berlin to New York. There are dinner invitations and regrets, coffees and lunches, comments on working papers and introductions, links to academic controversies, thoughts on tenures and promotions, exchanges of meanings of esoteric Urdu words and phrases, discussions of new books, always. There is a photograph that I have in my memory– but not in my possession– from somewhere in 2002/03/04 at the annual South Asia conference at Berkeley. The photograph is taken at night and in the haze of bad light and smoke, I see Kavita standing alongside friends. I am not sure this memory of a photograph is not an invention but I keep looking for it nonetheless.
I am in sorrow and I offer my condolences to the loved ones, colleagues, and family of Kavita. She was the finest mind, the best read scholar I ever met, and the kindest to both arguments and humans. The loss to the field of South Asian history is tremendous, but I also mourn, alongside her loved ones, at our loss of her beautiful heart.
update 08/01: A tribute to Kavita Datla at H-Asia.
Deepak Singh (DS) is a writer, radio producer, and journalist. He is a frequent contributor to PRI’s The World and has written for The New York Times, NPR, The Boston Globe and The Atlantic. His new book, How May I Help You? An Immigrant’s Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage by UCPress in Feb 2017. We are happy to carry a conversation between Singh and long-time CM friend Aftab Ahmad. Aftab Ahmad (AA) earned his PhD in Urdu literature from Jawahar Lal Nehru University, specializing in Urdu humor and satire. He was the director of AIIS, Urdu Language Program at Lucknow, for four years. He published Bombay Stories (Random House India, 2012, and Vintage International, 2014) and Mirages of The Mind (Random House India, 2014, and A New Directions Book, 2015) with co-translator Matt Reeck. Recipient of PEN Translation Grant, he has taught at UC-Berkeley. He now teaches Urdu language and literature at Columbia University.
AA: For the benefit of those who have not read the book yet could you say briefly what is this book about and what in your own opinion have you achieved and accomplished through this book?
DS: This book is about my experiences as a ‘fresh off the plane’ immigrant in the United States of America, selling electronics in a retail store in a small town Virginia, where I learned about the struggles of my colleagues and I adapted to my job and my new life. There are a lot of qualified, educated Indians and immigrants in general, staffing the many motels, grocery stores, super markets in the United States. They came to the U.S. looking for a better life, but we often take for granted what they had to give up to be here, the sacrifices they made. We can’t paint all immigrants by a single brush. By telling stories of low-wage employees, I have attempted to bring openness and humanity to debates about work, race, ethnicity and immigration in the United States.
AA: This goes back and forth about your experiences in the USA and India. Each compelling experience in USA brings some memories back to your mind from your life in India. While writing the book did you have to suppress certain experiences that you thought wouldn’t go well with Indians – that would have brought a negative image of India? Did you feel the burden of not saying anything about India that could throw a negative light on it?
DS: Throughout the writing process I constantly asked myself if I was being true to myself in expressing my experiences and my feelings. Most days, I sat and cried at my desk before I typed the first word. I have tried my best to bare my heart in this book and I tried to live by the famous Robert Frost quote: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” I do hope that my honesty comes through for my reader.
AA: In India we only hear about Pakistan and people over there. We get immediately riled up just by the mention of Pakistan. Our patriotism is aroused. We just live with a certain image of Pakistan without any real experiences with people. Most people in India die even without ever seeing a Pakistani man or woman. In the USA, we get the opportunity to meet people from all parts of the world. Would you like to say something about your experiences with Pakistani people in the USA?
DS: This book has taken place almost entirely on the sales floor, where I did meet a few Pakistanis, but wasn’t able to engage in a meaningful conversation. To answer your question, I’d say yes, I would’ve never met a person from Pakistan if I hadn’t left India. I had a certain perception about Pakistanis before I arrived in the U.S. Laughing and joking with folks from Pakistan in the U.S., I’d often forget they were not from India. And, I’d often think, “They aren’t all that different from me, are they?”
AA: Would you like to say something to your readers that you would have said if you wrote the book today, in the light of recent political developments in both India (including the new CM in UP and the rise in Hindu nationalism) and America?
DS: Growing up a high caste Hindu in Lucknow, India, I wasn’t aware of the privilege it afforded me. Although, most of my friends were Muslims, I didn’t know what it was like to be a minority, or to not be a Hindu in a Hindu majority nation. No one questioned my patriotism for India, or treated me as if I didn’t belong to the country, or asked me to leave India if I didn’t like it. I joked and criticized its government without worrying that someone might think of me as an antinationalist. Coming to the United States, I became a part of the minority. It took me a while, but I learned what it feels like to belong to the lower strata of the society—a society that is underprivileged, disadvantaged. The book took 6 years to write. I wasn’t writing every single day of the last six years and the most of the revision happened in the last year. I don’t know what I would say if I was writing the book today, but I do want to say that my heart grieves to know what’s going on with minorities—be it India, Pakistan, or the United States.
AA: What fundamental differences do you see in the thinking and attitudes of people in India and the United States in general? I’m thinking about differences that reflect deeper cultural orientations to the world. Your analogy of Black Friday and Kumbh Fair in India brings this question to mind. A vast majority of people in India live on pathetic wages. They seem to be barely scraping by and many times living by gathering debt. Yet they appear to be happy. Are they really happy?
DS: I left India about 13 years ago and since then the country has changed drastically. Smart phones and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram didn’t exist then. Home phones were a luxury and cellphones had just been introduced in early 2000s. No one knew the word ‘selfie. Working in retail in America, I noticed that Americans didn’t hesitate to buy something on credit. They actually seemed thrilled if they were able to purchase something on credit and often times people planned to spend their paycheck that they were expecting in two weeks’ time. I noticed they indulged in shopping to forget about their sadness, depression. I think it is hard to be poor in a rich country. There’s a stigma attached to being poor in America. You’re considered to be a slacker, someone who is lazy. Where as in India, poverty is everywhere. You can’t spend a single day without witnessing a hungry child on a street. I don’t know what I am trying to say here, but the point is that people in India seem to have other things—their family—to hold on to when they are down and out, where as in the U.S. you’re on your own after a certain age.
Sarah Besky received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. She is the author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (University of California Press, 2014). Her current research works across ethnographic and archival evidence as well as rural tea plantations and urban auction houses and blending factories to explore “cheapness” as a social and economic value. A second book based on this research is tentatively titled The Cost of Cheap Tea: An Ethnography of Value in India.
When I sat down to write this Prologue to this new Chinese-language edition of The Darjeeling Distinction, I had just returned from a six-week research trip to London, where I steeped myself in the archives of the British Indian tea industry, mostly housed at the British Library. As I pored through old correspondences between planters in the hills of Assam, Darjeeling, Kerala, and Kangra and brokers and buyers in London, comparisons between the teas of China and India abounded. Even if the idea of writing a Prologue for a Chinese edition of my book had not been at the back of my mind during those months surrounded by musty letters, notes, and scientific documents about everything from chemical contents to proper modes of storage and shipping, these comparisons would have been impossible to miss.
Anxiety on the part of European tea planters in India about how the quality of Indian tea measured up to that of Chinese tea are emblematic of a longer economic and geopolitical entanglement between Britain, India, and China that spans continents and centuries, and links commodities including tea, opium, and silver. Readers of The Darjeeling Distinction can find some of the history of this struggle recounted in the book’s early chapters. Continue reading “CM Exclusive: Prologue to the Chinese Language Edition of The Darjeeling Distinction”