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Simply untrue

Life in America revolves around a plethora of stereotypes — wild notions that paint whole communities with broad brushes, without thought to accuracy or context.

Some say such generalizations make it easier to understand, and keep pace with, a complex world. Hence the suggestion that crime is a mostly black and Hispanic phenomenon, Latin American immigrants are junkies and rapists, Indians are misers who learn by rote, Chinese are cheats and Asians, in general, are a passive race. The only true Americans are the whites and blacks, but patriotism is a province of the white race.

Thanks to Democrats and years of globalization, the narrative goes,  whites are finding it harder to make ends meet. The economy is importing technology and skills they cannot match. And only by reversing, or severely limiting, globalization can true Americans be lifted from their morass of hopelessness.

Obviously, it is this narrative that propelled Trump to the presidency in 2016 — and probably fuel his foreign and domestic policy. The problem, however, is that stereotypes only go so far in explaining our rapidly changing universe.

Did Trump’s ideas about striking a rapport with his “smart” friend Putin bring Russia closer to the United States? Did offering to meet the North Korean leader stop that nation from building a nuclear capability, with China’s assistance? Back home, did all the money spent by the National Rifle Association for Trump’s campaign prevent the rifle industry from filing for bankruptcy after his election victory? Why isn’t anybody splurging on guns? Could they have other priorities, perhaps?

Reality has a way of straightening out misconceptions. Jingoism and hatred don’t bring in jobs — if they did, Trump would be a national hero by now. Building a wall will not prevent immigrants from seeking a better life in America, simply because life in our neighbors to the south is brutish and short — and many people enter through airports anyway. Spreading lies about minorities don’t cut it with most Americans, who know the difference between hearsay and facts.

That’s why the Republican Party in Virginia dismissed Freddy Burgos, a member of its leadership known for his anti-Muslim rantings, who posted a Facebook comment that only Christians are fit to run for public office.

Granted, Trump’s election had something to do with the effects of globalization. America has failed to prepare its workforce for the sweeping technological changes of the 21st century, while corporate giants went about transforming everyday life. It is only now waking up to the importance of STEAM — or science, technology, engineering, arts and math — education to help make its labor pool more qualified for the jobs of the future.

The way to win this battle is to get better — not keep out the competition. As in sports, so in life: Playing a skilled opponent only sharpens your faculties and makes you a better player in the global marketplace.

A state of joy

The other day, my neighbor exulted about my burst of energy — she remarked that I was glowing with happiness. Four months ago, I had broken my ankle and was either bedridden or hobbling around on crutches, and now I was back on my feet. My recovery seemed complete. She even asked my daughter the name and number of my surgeon. She was curious how someone who looked so miserable for months could undergo such an utter and complete transformation.

The truth is this wasn’t about my ankle. It was about my heart. I had just got back from a vacation to my homeland, India, an annual trip to that diverse and vibrant country to catch up with friends and family and revisit familiar locales.

For 14 glorious days, I allowed myself to be drawn into the chaos of New Delhi’s noisy streets, wrong-way drivers, overcrowded marketplaces, bumpy roads and elsewhere,  untamed rivers and jungles — to savor the sounds and smells of a land I call home, light years away from Long Island, where I live and work.

My escape began with the Air India flight I took from JFK. The spicy food seemed better prepared than the half-baked ideas of my neighbor on the plane, a 35-year-old businessman, who was convinced that China has a Muslim majority and the exchange rate was never 15 rupees to the dollar in the 80s, before he was born. I knew better than to argue with him.

Once in Delhi, I couldn’t stop looking for subjects to sketch and photograph — the buses and trains and autorickshaws and bicyclists. As my brother Prodip sweated through the 50-mile drive home from the airport to Greater Noida under the afternoon sun, I took in the passing skylines and  dusty roads. The noisy, reckless drivers we encountered were a reminder of a familiar reality — that some things never change. I was fine with that.

At Prodip’s home, I savored the guavas and grapes and the tangra fish curry his wife, Ruby, cooked. Later, I sat in their balcony and sketched the forest of high-rises as I watched laborers from surrounding villages being dropped off in tractors for work in front of luxury apartment complexes still being built — even as residents have begun moving in. The jobs are precious — they mean food and education for thousands of struggling villagers who have nothing to fall back on except manual, or menial, work.

A few days later, I moved to the apartment of my friend, PK, in Vasant Kunj, where I whipped out my watercolors and sketched the rooftops in one of the city’s most enviable neighborhoods. The scenes were a throwback to the late 80s and early 90s, when we lived in south Delhi before emigrating to the United States. Much of  the neighborhoods I knew are unrecognizable today, with flyovers and high-rises having obliterated marketplaces and streets lined with villagers hawking fruit and vegetables. Of course, being with PK, was a pleasure in itself — we talked about the musicians and the novelists we love, and ate some delicious tandoori chicken and rotis at a dhaba on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he teaches. His home, filled with books, paintings and objets d’art, always keeps me busy sketching for hours.

My exploration continued after I switched to my friend Debu’s home on the north campus of Delhi University, where his wife Rini teaches English. The foodies that we are, Debu and I went about executing our plan step by step: First lunch at Oh Calcutta, a restaurant known for its scrumptious Bengali food, where we wolf down deep fried tortillas (luchis), goat curry (sajnekhalir mangsho) and fried eggplants, then head back home and snooze. The next day, we hired a cab to take us to the Jama Masjid, which I spent an hour photographing and sketching. I even shot a video of the streets around the holy site — a riot of life, color, cacophony and confusion that never fails to deliver. Then we downed a few beers at the India Habitat Center, and ate at Karim’s — fluffy bread (khamiri rotis), mutton burra kababs and halim, a delicacy made by pounding mutton and lentils in a medley of spices.

My vacation took on another dimension when we traveled from the streets of Delhi to the jungles of Kumaon — the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarkhand. Debu, PK and I joined five other friends — a professor, three journalists and a guitarist — for this excursion we had been planning for months. After sitting on a train for five hours, we drove in a minibus over a stretch of rural India that looked like the villages and small towns I’d reported from as a journalist 40 years ago, when I wrote about caste violence, police atrocities and superstitious practices like witchcraft.

We got off at what looked like an abandoned bridge over the shallow Ramganga river within the Corbett preserve, a place not often visited by tigers but quite frequently elephants, monkeys and other animals, we were told. The terrain was rustic and untamed, as would be expected in a wildlife preserve. From here on there would be no more paved roads, only rocks and rivers. The eight of us boarded two amphibious jeeps that carried us over the bumpy, undulating ground, and then four river crossings. We stopped at the fifth, which we crossed by raft, two of us to each, pulled across by rope.

Once on the other side, our porters led us on a half-mile trek to Vanghat, our cluster of thatched brick cottages in a leafy compound ringed by an electric fence, nestled among the pale green mountains where animals roamed free. The roar of the river was pierced by the sounds of birds, crickets and the occasional cry of the peacock. It was a long time since I had felt this far from civilization — the last time being when I had trekked to Madhyamaheshwar, an 11,473-foot-high peak in the Garhwal Himalayas, shrouded in mist and devoid of human habitation, 38 years ago.

Over the next four days, we gazed at the stars and birds, rafted across the river, climbed steep mountains into dense forests over winding paths blanketed with fallen leaves — a venture fraught with risk for someone recovering from ankle surgery — bathed in the river, and rode open jeeps on a safari into the heart of the tiger preserve and back. Although we had no tiger sightings to report, the trip was well worth getting up before dawn and facing the blast of cold air with hardly adequate clothing, something we griped about for a while — until the sun came out.

The getaway was a chance for the eight of us to do what we love most — argue about everything from politics to journalism to academics to music to movies — and joke about one another. For a few days, we breathed and smelled the air of the Kumaon Valley, with our smartphones mostly out of service, carrying on a tradition we have come to cherish and preserve, particularly after we lost one of our own, Arindam “Bong” Sengupta, to cancer in 2016. We know he would have loved it in Vanghat.

Like every year, it was an extraordinary vacation that yielded more than the value of the rupees we spent — an experience enriched by the conversations, wisdom, fun and energy we infect each other with. In the end, we all go home with a sense of renewal and fulfillment – something our families have come to understand is vital for our sanity.

In my case, the results were apparent.

Wanted: Some common sense

A serious lack of judgment threatens the future of the world. Countries are increasingly becoming divisive and partisan over how to deal with the problems that beset them – terror, jobs and the economy — and the clash of values is resulting in a lack of direction and certainty for the regimes in power.

In other words, we seem to be approaching the sort of global instability that preceded the world wars –- at a time when the world needs to be united to confront the common threats to humanity from religious hostility, climate change and growing economic hardship.

One would have thought that the emergence of Internet and social media – which have had the effect of spreading knowledge and information and empowering millions worldwide – would level the playing ground for people all over the world and help reduce the iniquities of the market economy.

In truth, they are helping educate millions and provide jobs and opportunities where there were few – but technology has also become a means to spread lies and mass hysteria and wage cyber warfare for regressive forces bent on sabotaging democracies.

Which brings us to an important issue: Technology is not what will save the world but leadership and character, human traits that have been prized for centuries.

To overcome our divisions and obstacles, we will need to draw on our values of integrity, honesty, mutual respect and hard work –- the best of what is handed down from generation to generation.

We develop good judgment if we see it in our parents – and pass it down to our children.

That’s the can we should be kicking down the road -– not debts and pollution and global warming, which amount to robbing our kids of their right to live good, healthy lives and prosper.

Frankly, good, old-fashioned values are what make some communities happier than others — a willingness to help others and work together to achieve collective goals.

That’s why the United States’ decision to back out of the Paris climate treaty and other trade agreements and make it tougher for immigrants — who continue to fuel its success on so many fronts —  to enter the country is so unfortunate. Similar narrow-minded policies are gaining political support in many other nations.

Countries are loathe to compete with others because they find themselves losing out in the global marketplace that they themselves helped create. What they fail to recognize is that isolation will only make them weaker and less competitive, effectively hastening their economic decline.

Better if they learned from their competitors and worked on improving themselves.

But that takes humility and courage and strength of character — which could go a long way toward changing the course of history.

The Voice

(To my mother, Santwana Mitra, who passed away at 85 on May 17, 2016)

Ma 2015

 

A patient, adoring voice that buoyed my heart,

Shared fond memories and anecdotes of times passed,

Warmed my nightly journeys back home from work via satellite,

Just faded into the darkness of twilight.

 

The mother who shielded me from hurt,

Kept me close by her as she sat through college lectures,

Escorted me hundreds of miles away to a school in the hills,

Uttered her last blessings, saying get well she will.

 

The voice of assurance that all will be well,

That sang me to sleep on countless nights

Gave me hope and strength growing up as a child

Is now embedded in the recesses of my mind.

 

She lives in me, as I grew in her,

Our worlds fused in a sea of mirth and memories,

Of cricket, music, food and gossip — all things trivial,

That filled our lives with laughter and thrill.

 

 

The googly

It was a nippy autumn morning. We awoke in the semi-darkness, jumped into our white shorts and shoes and assembled on the playground by the hospital, waiting for instructions on what was to be an atypical start to the day. Instead of physical training, we’d be throwing cricket balls, an athletic event that seemed like a way to spot pace bowlers –- much like baseball clubs in America, where I live today, scout for pitchers by testing them for sheer speed and accuracy.

I wasn’t sure this was a sport I could shine in, but what the heck, I told myself, ironically. “Why not take a crack at it?”

Like most of my countrymen and fellow students at Sainik School, Purulia, a prep school for the commissioned ranks of India’s armed forces, I loved cricket, and had the highest regard for anyone who could hurl the ball with deadly force and knock the living daylights out of a batsman -– if nothing, by brute power. I’d heard of English bodyline bowlers who aimed for the batsman’s head and torso, not that it was an ideal I aspired for. But I was in awe of bowlers who could use raw power to unnerve the adversary.

For most of my 12 years, I had developed a passion for cricket, first as a less-than-mediocre player in the scrappy games my older brothers organized with friends in the neighborhood, on the field in front of our home in Calcutta, and then as a radio junkie and spectator with my father at Eden Gardens, during India’s test match with Gary Sobers’ West Indies in 1966 –- when we got caught in a riot outside the stadium on our way home, engulfed in a cloud of tear gas.

But mulling over the possibilities on that fateful morning in 1968, I never saw myself as much of a bowler –- much less a fast bowler. Though I pondered: Could I? I mean, throw the ball really fast?

That’s what the instructor told us to do. Forget the arm action. The rules of the game didn’t matter. This is just about flinging the ball with force. Give it all you’ve got.

And I did. After watching the other students take their turns, and feeling somewhat encouraged, I picked up a ball, held it in my right hand, ran up to the wicket, arched back and swung it away with all the power and ferocity I could summon with my young frame.

What followed was a scene from a horror movie: Only this one was for real, and I was the victim.

Absorbing the full impact of the swing, my right arm over-straightened with an audible “crack!” and left me writhing in indescribable pain. I collapsed to the ground in blind agony. Not sure what had happened, I opened my eyes and looked at my right elbow. A piece of bone had pierced the flesh and was sticking out like a needle. My arm hung limply from my shoulder, bleeding and swollen from the wound.

Barely conscious, I was carried to the school hospital, where I was put on a bed. My mother, who was a matron at the school, was informed of the accident, and afterward, I remember being driven to the hospital in Purulia, the local town in West Bengal state, where a young doctor put a gauze of chloroform on my nose and mouth and asked me to count till 10 while I lay on a bed.

When I awoke, my arm was in a plaster. The words “supracondyle fracture” were added to my lexicon, and so were humerus, radius and ulna. It turns out the impact of the swing caused friction between my humerus and elbow joint, breaking the humerus. It wasn’t an ordinary fracture. But the doctor gave me the impression he had put the broken piece back in place, and that the gap would close.

It didn’t.

Fast forward a year. My mother had left the school. We were in Calcutta. And three more elbow-shattering falls later — I seemed to have lost the ability to chuck, much less throw, anything with my right hand — I was back under the knife, for a bone graft from my hip to fill an egg-sized cyst that had formed in my elbow joint.

The stay in a public ward in SSKM Hospital kept me out of school for 10 days and put me in touch with people from all walks of life — a young boy who had got burned by fireworks during a puja ceremony, a 3-foot-tall man with a disability who was being operated on for a congenital defect, and of course, the doctors and nurses and aides.

The doctor told my father that I would get better, and that my elbow would heal and become as good as normal. He was right. Only, I found that I could never straighten my arm again — so bowling was out of the question.

Also, it turned out, was a career in the military — which my father, a veteran of World War II — believed was the only decent way to live in India because it was the one British institution we had left intact. After clearing the National Defence Academy exam and the Air Force Selection Board, I was rejected on medical grounds. To my disappointment, I could never be like my brothers, who went on to join the army and fight for their country.

But as I think about it after all these years, was it really that bad?

I’m still not sure why the accident happened. After all, why would throwing a ball injure a child? Medically, I suppose, it could be anything from a congenital defect to calcium deficiency that caused brittle bone syndrome.

In another way, I could rationalize it as karma. I know I always had rather good aim, and a disturbing talent for hurting my target. When I was 5, furious at my brother for not letting me bat after I had been bowled out during a game, I had picked up a rock and thrown it at him from quite a distance, striking him on the head. It took my mother a whole saree to soak up the blood, and ten stitches to close the wound, besides earning me a lashing with my father’s military belt.

Whatever the reason, the injury was a googly life had dealt me –- that I had played ably, and learned and grown stronger and wiser from the experience.

My brief stint as a staff child in Sainik School had exposed me to some great teachers, enduring friendships and strange situations, some embarrassing, some proud, some extraordinary.

But this one was life-altering – I bear the scars of it on my arm and hip, and still mention the surgery on medical forms I fill out at the doctor’s office.

What would have happened had I thrown the ball like everyone else? What if I hadn’t slumped to my knees with a broken elbow, and ambled off the field and gone on with my life as usual? I probably wouldn’t be here, an editor in a newspaper in New York, after 35 years in journalism, 16 of them spent traveling and covering social and political upheaval in India.

That was the course my life took –- by accident or inscrutable design –- and it’s been a thrilling game all the way.

But I’ve never tried throwing a cricket ball again.

Journalism

There was a day when we were proud to say,
We work to print the truth every Sunday,
About the poor, the mean, vile, and violent,
And those who sabotage government.

Fresh from college, we dug in for the haul,
Stumbled and learned from trial and fall,
Sniffed out stories and wrote like a fighter,
Battled corruption with the typewriter.

Some lost their bearings and played fast and loose,
For prizes that hung around their necks like a noose,
Some took the long road to fortune and fame,
And found solace in the rules of the game.

The Voyage (to my wife Shoma)

Your love is a sturdy sail
That rights our ship
As I steer our course
With a weakening grip.

Three decades and counting
We’ve been adrift
On a choppy ocean
Amid tectonic shifts.

Remember the day we left the shore
Amid cloudy skies and pleasantries
We braved the storms and held on
Hoping to cross the high seas.

A sojourn in the capital
Brought happy tidings, a new soul
A student of fashion, blessed with compassion
A guardian angel who made us whole.

Then we struck land
And stopped to drink
From a lake of plenty
Where we couldn’t sink.

Decades later as we debate
How we judged our homeland, left to our devices
The hands of time have spun ahead
Reminding us of the finality of our choices.

Regrets we have a few
But who’s to know
How life will turn out
There’s still a ways to go.

Of loves and fishes (to my wife Shoma)

I smell fish and salivate,
You devour tomes on royalty,
I choose to sketch while you debate
What to buy until eternity.

You pine to travel to England some day
The land that inspired Shakespeare and Keats
I dream of gorging when you’re away
On sumptuous curries from our neighbors to the East.

Yet together we argue and collaborate
In our world of love and apprehension
Looking for joy in a higher state
Awed by beauty and erudition.

Incredible India

A poem on the BBC documentary titled “India’s Daughter,” about the brutal gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old medical student, in Delhi that the Modi government has banned in India, viewable on YouTube.

A light goes out, a fire burns
Jyoti’s savage murder, a nation learns
Will wipe away the tears of half the land
Unite womankind to make us understand
Blaming rape on the victim can take a violent turn.

A gift to her parents, a life to celebrate
She wanted to be a doctor, a poor girl who defied fate
Worked into the wee hours as a call center worker
To pay for med school, proving she was smarter
Than the elusive male child for whom families wait.

Her father scraped up enough as a laborer starved of opportunity
To fulfill her dream of becoming a hero of the community
To serve the people and build a hospital for the destitute
Turn lives around and show what girls can do if they’re resolute
Even in a country where males rule with impunity.

She died fighting to live and make a difference
Deprived of safe transportation, a capital offence
Now the government wants to silence talk of loathsome crimes
Says it knows better than to believe what a BBC report finds
But if society has to change, acknowledging the truth is of essence.

If politicians turn a blind eye, public fury will explode
Force officials to admit their failure to police the road
At hours when young workers struggling to survive fear to go out
Without a ride from a friend or colleague on the same route
A shame for a country that aspires to lead the world.

Government shutdown an eye-opener for Americans

With the chronic stalemate in Washington threatening the nation’s security, America’s two-party system would seem to have outlived its usefulness. A Republican faction is bent on derailing Obamacare by holding the government to ransom over its day-to-day funding and its right to borrow – an attempt likely to be repeated in January.

However, the posturing will not spell the end of the two-party system that has run this nation for almost two centuries. This subject has come up in the past, when the likes of Ross Perot and Ralph Nader tried to wreck the Democratic Party with gobs of money, but failed for lack of popular support.

The tea partyers, on the other hand, suffer from a deficit of common sense, by now obvious to most Americans. Sure, they enjoy the backing of financiers like the Koch brothers. But moderate Republicans know their friends on the far right remain out of touch with reality, obsessed with an issue on which they can never win – because the Affordable Care Act was upheld by the Supreme Court, and most Americans will benefit from it beginning Jan. 1. (In fact, so many applicants rushed to enroll that New York State’s health care website was forced to shut down for a while.)

For all the tea partyers’ claims about Obamacare being, in effect, a steep tax on Americans, the 2012 election was a referendum on the law, which the people approved despite all its flaws – amid a sluggish economic recovery marked by high unemployment.

With Rep. Ted Cruz of Texas and his followers humiliated over the 16-day government shutdown in October, and the bipartisan deal to lift the debt ceiling, moderate Republicans are ruling out a repeat of the shutdown in January, when the next deadline to lift the debt ceiling comes up. Republicans must sort out their differences within the party before it further damages America’s global standing, and creditworthiness.

Americans blame Congressional Republicans for the October catastrophe, which cost the nation billions of dollars and eroded support for the GOP, polls indicate. Thousands of federal workers were furloughed. Countless small businesses were hit by the closure of national parks. National security was jeopardized with civilian defense employees prevented from doing their jobs, and law-enforcement officials were forced to work without pay.

Some federal employees protested about being treated as pawns in this game of political brinkmanship. The shutdown, nonetheless, served to demonstrate the tea party’s destructive brand of politics – and helped undecided Americans see them in their true colors.

Even if hatred of Obamacare runs deep in some congressional constituencies, paralysis is not the way most people want the nation to go.