Sunday, October 10, 2004

An American Diary

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

BYLINE BY M.J. AKBAR : An American Diary

The biggest tourist attraction in America now is the immigration service at the airport. It evokes the same mild dread that was once reserved for Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. Common sense suggests that nothing will happen when you encounter them, but who can erase the faint consternation that you could be the next big story in the news? There is never any logic to an accident. Surely the most famous face on the Washington-Boston air run is that of the unmistakable Senator Edward Kennedy, and yet he has been stopped, and even denied permission to emplane, six times. (Thought: which computer could have possibly programmed a likely terrorist with a name like Edward Kennedy? It must be Republican black humour).

Senator Kennedy might grin and bear it, but one can see the apprehension on the faces of anonymous browns, particularly those with unfamiliar headgear or shaped beards. There is also the fear and loathing associated with fingerprinting. For Indians it must arouse the collective consciousness of disgust for the thana level of suspicion. Nothing is more greasy than the thought of the thumb being jabbed on carbon ink by a fat police hand before it is pressed again on smudgy government paper. Why do Indian constables insist on holding the victim’s hand all through the process? Middle class sensitivities are also affronted by the implicit suggestion of illiteracy. Only those who cannot sign must be fingerprinted, isn’t it?

Now for the good news. The immigration service at the San Francisco International Airport is as friendly, efficient and fast as it is possible for a government service to be. The premonition of long, horrible queues turns out to be a mistaken nightmare. This might be because my flight landed at 12 in the afternoon instead of 12 at night, but the pace of clearance was brisk and standardised. Someone has been dictating from the relevant chapter of How to Win Friends and Influence People. The thumbprinting is psychologically painless, since 19th century ink has been replaced by 21st century electronic ray. On domestic flights the democratisation of security is reassuring. You do not have to be a defence minister of India to take off your shoes. Everyone, white, yellow, brown or black, has to do this. A minor side-effect is that travellers have become conscious of their socks now that they are required to take off their shoes. Branded socks are in.

I have not fully recovered from the glow of my most painless journey to America in over two decades of travelling to the land of hope, glory and immigration. If the news changes, I shall report that as well.

Berkeley is the kind of campus they make for the movies: relaxed, sunny, gentle and anti-Bush. The weather is splendid with views (both geographic and intellectual) to match. One could make a career of doing a doctorate out here, and indeed many do. This is the first leg of a three-university lecture tour. The reaction to an alternative, Washington-sceptic presentation on Muslims, South Asia and the world after Iraq is absorbed and sympathetic from both faculty and students. Raka Ray, who heads the South Asia department, has unambiguous faith in her guests; she is unfazed by the fact that the lecture has been scheduled at precisely the same time as the Edwards-Cheney debate. My ego gets a boost when I learn that there is even a gatecrasher. It is quickly deflated when I learn, upon investigation, that he has come for the free wine and cheese. I actually see him stuffing his baggy and bedraggled pockets with cheese. What I once thought was pedantic dressing-down is practical for minor theft. He has been known to walk off with a full bottle of wine stuck in his waistband.

Iowa is the heart of America, and the heart of America is serene, silent, rural and decisive. This is the kind of archetypal mid-western state that Dave Barry ribs when he is short of a topic for his weekly humour column. It is true that you are welcomed to Cedar Rapids, home to the University of Iowa, by a massive statue of a milch cow. The pavements of the two-avenue downtown are punctuated by large plastic eagles in American football uniforms. Milk and patriotism are the passions of Iowa. In a mellifluous piece this week in the New York Times, R.W. Apple reveals that the information centre on the highway linking the capital, Des Moines, with Kansas City boasts a sign proclaiming "Iowa — where exciting things happen" but treat that as an advertisement. It is generally believed that the liveliest movement in the state is the swaying of amber fields of corn. Trust me, that corn on endless miles of flat, relentless plains can look beautiful. Apple notes that John Wayne comes from Iowa, but it is entirely in character that when Wayne was in Iowa his name was Marion Morrison. However, Iowa is poised to do the most exciting thing it has done in decades. It could be the decisive swing state in a close election between George Bush and John Kerry. The fate of the world could lie in the silence of Cedar Rapids.

Frederick Smith and Philip Lutgendorf breathe life and energy into India studies. They are known familiarly as Fredji and Philipji. Fredji speaks Sanskrit like a Chennai pandit, from whom he learnt his classics. Philipji recites Tulsidas like a charm. Their Hindi, needless to add, is impeccable. Philipji makes a splendid cup of chai and his listening music includes Fifties’ Hindi hits as well as Dil Se. We indulge in a lengthy and passionate conversation where I deliver myself of theories on Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar. Only one of them, Dev Anand, I argue, is a genuine iconoclast. Raj Kapoor weeps too quickly at the sight of mother earth, and Dilip Kumar weeps too quickly, period. We are in total agreement on Waheeda Rehman, the most glorious creation of the Almighty in the history of civilisation, with some competition from Madhubala. Philipji not only teaches medieval Indian literature but also a course on contemporary Bollywood. Later on, during my lecture, I use the excuse of a wandering question to trace the history of Indian Muslims through the confidence levels of Muslims in the film industry. The proposition is tentatively titled "The Guilt of Dilip Kumar" who was christened Yusuf Khan but was forced to adopt this nom de plume in order to become acceptable at the box office. True, even Hindu stars took on screen-friendly aliases, but they did not have to change their ethnic associations. Mehmood and Waheeda Rehman were the first important stars to retain their original names. It is a tribute to changing India that the three Khans, Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh, are not required to play hide-and-seek.

The secret is out. The future of the world may lie on a couch. John Kerry’s resurrection is being attributed to two reasons. He brought in some sharp Clintonians into the upper echelons of his strategy team. And they brought in Sigmund Freud. The way to George Bush Junior’s jugular vein is through his dad. All you have to do to destroy Junior’s composure is to praise his father, particularly on Iraq. That is what Kerry did, at judiciously spaced intervals in the first debate, now uniformly acknowledged as an unequivocal victory for Kerry. Bush Junior, also nicknamed Bush Lite, hates being told that his father showed more sense during the earlier war against Saddam Hussein. Kerry rubbed that nerve with salt, pepper and chilli: "You know the President’s father did not go into Iraq ... beyond Basra ... he wrote in his book, because there was no visible exit strategy. And he said our troops would be occupiers in a bitterly hostile land. That’s exactly where we find ourselves today. There’s a sense of American occupation."

It has been whispered that Junior was at least partially motivated in his Iraq adventure by the desire to be one-up on his father, who defeated Saddam but refused to pay the price that destruction of Saddam demanded. That whisper has become a shout.

Kerry brought up Father Bush in the second debate as well, although Son Bush was better prepared to handle the trap. He was under strict orders not to scowl, or appear like a petulant rich kid watching his toys being taken away. But his advisers forgot to tell him not to blink. He kept blinking whenever Kerry spoke in the debate, like a faulty but obstinate neon light. His spin doctors tried some post-debate repair work. One of them told CNN, for instance, that Bush was having so much fun during this debate that he kept winking. Good try, but no goal. You can’t wink with both eyes.

Success or failure is determined in these debates as much by what you say as what you do not say. Bush was damaged severely by his scowl in Round One of the Great Presidential Heavyweight Championship. He could lose on blinking points in Round Two. He was, generally, more assured in this round. There was a sense that if he messed up again he would be out of the count and he did enough to stay in the race. But Kerry was in command, of the facts, of the language, of the dynamics of argument. Kerry, to return to Freud, was the son that Bush Senior might have wished to beget: patrician, patriotic, educated and balanced rather than merely gutsy, guttural and plain old lucky.

This remains an election that Kerry can’t win unless Bush loses it.

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