America delivers!

Obama

There’s no further doubt. America truly is the greatest nation on earth. It truly is the land of opportunity, a nation of dreams. America has finally delivered on its promise that anyone born on its soil can achieve anything.

On 5th November 2008, Barack Hussein Obama won the epic contest to become the 44th President of the United States of America. It was the victory of progressiveness over backwardness, of diversity over monoculturalism, of honorable conduct over gutter politics. A nation celebrated, and the world celebrated with them.

With the benefit of hindsight, was it really going to be any other way? Not with a leader who had the charisma unseen since Bill Clinton. Not with a candidate who had been compared with Lincoln, Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr long before election day neared. In a nation clamoring for change, Obama not only offered it, but personified it.

The calamitous reign of George W Bush made it impossible for any Republican candidate. A catalog of disasters (self-inflicted and otherwise) made the American people sick of their incumbent party. McCain and Co compounded the problem with a dirty campaign that repelled most of the undecideds. The economy hit rock bottom just four weeks before the polls. And then, there was Sarah Palin. Enough said. The writing was on the wall.

Conservative, insular and parochial forces tried their best to set the evolutionary clock backwards, but sanity prevailed. Obama swept to victory in hotly contested Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and added insult to injury by prising Virginia. The traditional Democratic bastions remained blue, and McCain had to fall back on traditional Republican territory. When the dust settled, it was a monumental victory for Obama.

What does this mean for the world? Everything. America will no longer be wrongly perceived as an institution of white men trying to extend a colonialistic influence across the globe. America will be perceived for what it is, a great nation where blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, men, women, young and old belonged, and belonged equally. It is no longer white Uncle Sam zeroing in on unassuming targets. It’s no longer the bald eagle swooping down on oil-rich territory. America is now a friend to the world. A nation that offers hope and direction to an ailing planet.

It will be years, perhaps decades, before Americans realize the full magnitude of what they have done. They have freed their country from the shackles of slavery, slavery to parochial instincts, slavery to age-old prejudices, slavery to their own barriers.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr said, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”

Yes they did.

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This is my India, now tell me yours

Gurdeep Singh returns to his grocery store from lunch. He is a strong, tall, turbaned, bearded Sikh. A Canadian Punjabi. He has been in Vancouver for the past 32 years. He set up his store in Vancouver’s Punjabi market, catering to the South Asian community. He has brought up his son and daughter lovingly, giving them the education he could.

To Gurdeep, India is Punjab. The wheat fields, the strong youth, the gurudwaras, the five rivers, the multitude of Sikh gurus. The Golden Temple in Amritsar is the enduring symbol of his culture. One of his proudest moments was showing the great Sikh monument to both his Canadian-born children when they went back to Amritsar a few years ago. This is his India.

A thousand kilometres south in Sunnyvale, Krishnan is finishing his dosa at Saravana Bhavan, before driving off to catch the latest Tamil movie which has been released at the Indian Movie Center in a nearby suburb. Krishnan is the typical Bay Area Tamilian. He graduated from Anna University in Madras and joined a leading Silicon Valley firm. He started off as an R&D engineer and worked his way to a team lead position, where he drives a team of 8 R&D engineers.

To Krishnan, India is Tamil Nadu. His idea of going back to India is to fly to Madras, visit his parents in T Nagar, Ranganathan uncle in Mylapore, and his in-laws in Kanchipuram. He’s a Kamal Hassan fan, so he’ll have the usual banter with his cousin who’s a Rajnikanth fan. He also loves talking about the other great duality of Tamil Nadu: DMK and ADMK. He will argue about the relative merits of Vivek and Vadivelu, and the reasons surrounding Subramanian Badrinath’s omission from the Indian cricket team. This is his India.

Halfway across the globe in Hong Kong, Manish Wadhwani is in heated discussions with his associate regarding his firm’s latest line of clothing. It is late at night, so he will soon drive off home for his daily dose of chapati. He is the archetypal Sindhi businessman. He came to Hong Kong 18 years ago, set up a business in the textile industry, and made his fortune.

To Manish, India is Bombay and Baroda. His idea of a trip to India is to fly to Bombay, take a train to Baroda and meet his clan there. His family had migrated to Baroda from Hyderabad in Sindh, Pakistan, during the partition, but to all intents and purposes, their native place was Baroda. His choice of topics include a comparison of Hong Kong with Bombay, the religious riots in Gujarat a few years earlier, Narendra Modi’s politics, and the relative merits of Sindhis vis-a-vis Gujjus and Parsis, their fellow inhabitants of Gujarat. This is his India.

There are a million more Indias living in the minds of the Bengali in Kolkata, the Malayalee in Muscat, the Tamilian in Singapore, the Gujarati in Kenya, the Kannadiga in Mysore and the UP-ite in Kanpur. It could be Rabindra Sangeet and Rabindranath Tagore for the Bengali, it could be Mohanlal’s next show in Muscat for the Malayalee, it could be Mayawati’s latest insult to her political rival for the UP-ite. One way or another, regional identities are dominant in India. Indians from different parts of India invariably view the country through different glasses. They might as well ask one another, “This is my India, now tell me yours”.

Why are regional identities so important to Indians? The answer is that India is a country of many nations. Each linguistic community in India is an ethnic group with its own history and culture. Gujaratis, Punjabis, Hindi-speakers, Tamilians, Kannadigas and Marathis are ethnic groups as real as the French, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Poles and Danes in Europe. Ignoring this and expecting all these communities to weld into one homogeneous identity is simply unrealistic. Indeed, attempts to homogenize Pakistan (a multi-ethnic country just like India) led to the loss of East Bengal, the 1972 riots between Urdu-speakers and Sindhis, and the continued separatism in Baluchistan. Even in India, an attempt to homogenize the country with one language invited a fierce backlash from the state of Tamil Nadu, which nearly seceded on the issue.

The best way to manage India’s diversity is to accept that the Indian national identity will always be the sum total of all its individual national identities. Unity is not about brushing differences under the carpet and pretending they don’t exist. Unity is about celebrating diversity, not ironing it out. It is about many colours in one rainbow. Regional identity does not conflict with Indian identity. In fact, it embellishes and adds vibrancy to it. Rabindranath Tagore, great son of Bengal and India, wrote Amar Shonar Bangla for Bengal and Jana Gana Mana for India. He was completely Bengali, completely Indian.

I’m writing this as a member of the Indian diaspora. As someone who has traveled to the northern, southern, eastern and western parts of India. As someone who knows Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil (in alphabetical order). As someone who watches movies in Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu (again in alphabetical order). My India is an India of 22 languages, 6 religions and a kaleidoscope of diversity. Now tell me yours.

When humanity shone through

This is a fictional story, with fictional characters (including the narrator). But it is based on a very real calamity: Black July 1983 of Sri Lanka. In July 1983, Sri Lanka was in flames, with widespread anti-Tamil riots, murders and looting, and a blaze of destruction to Tamil businesses and institutions. However, humanity still shone through in the form of the Sinhalese who protected the Tamils from certain people who claimed to be Sinhalese but were in fact not even human.

It was 24th July 1983. I was an average ten-year old Sinhalese schoolchild in an average Colombo school. It was just like any other day. But at 3pm, the unexpected news came, and we were all jubilant. The school ended early! We had no idea why the school ended early, but we merrily left the building.

I was pleasantly surprised to see my parents’ car in the carpark. How did they know my school ended early? I went in happily. But there was no joy in my parents’ eyes. “Chaminda, get in, quick!” said my mother. “Ma, I thought I had to come home on my own. How did you know my school ended early?” There was a deafening silence as my parents looked at each other as if to say, “Don’t tell him.”

There was an eerie calm on the streets as we drove out. When when we proceeded further, I saw something I had never seen in my entire life: An upside-down car burning. “How did that car end up like that?”, I asked. Mom and dad pretended they never heard me.

Further down, I saw something else that puzzled me. A bunch of tall, large men with clubs and spears. “What is happening? Are they looking for people to beat up?”, I asked. Now I sensed something was wrong. School ending early with no apparent reason, a burning car, and now a bunch of rowdies on the streets. “They are beating up some people”, said my dad. “But they won’t beat us up”, he added. I wondered what made him so sure that they won’t beat us up. I was scared. Really frightened.

Dad then turned into a road we usually do not take. I knew he had some plan, but I didn’t know what it was. Presumably knowing that I would ask where we are going, my dad said, “We’re going to Siva Uncle’s place. Then we’ll take him to our house.”

I was old enough to connect the dots. The school ending early, the unusual atmosphere, rowdies on the street, Dad’s intention to take Siva Uncle to our house. I knew some people were in danger, and Siva Uncle was one of them. There was only one missing piece in the jigsaw: Why were some people in danger, and others were not?

This missing piece in the jigsaw fell into place when we waited at a traffic light. Another bunch of rowdies appeared. My heart was in my mouth when they came to us carrying their weapons. One of the men bellowed out a simple question. A question which slammed the missing piece of the jigsaw into my head with all the force of a sledgehammer. He hollered, “Sinhalese or Tamil?”

When my father stated the fact that all three of us belonged to the former community, the rowdies started to move away. Then one of them said, “Wait. Open the boot and show us!” My dad opened the boot. Looking in and finding no one, they charged off.

We turned into one of the streets on the way to Siva Uncle’s place. We were entering Wellawatte, the Tamil locality of Colombo. A shrill, piercing scream filled the air. I saw something burning in the distance. “Chaminda, close your eyes!” screamed mum. I immediately obeyed. As we drove through the street, I smelt suffocating fumes, heard unknown objects being smashed brutally, and listened to people screaming agonizingly. All with my eyes closed. I dared not open them. In retrospect, I wish I had opened my eyes. Because imagination is a terrible thing. In my darkest nightmares, those screams come back to me, embellished with the most horrible images that my imagination can conjure.

We reached Siva Uncle’s place. “Siva, come in!”, called my father. Siva tried to open the boot and get in. Dad said, “No Siva, change of plan, you go to the back of the car instead of the boot.” Siva Uncle said, “But if they see me in the back of the car and suspect that I could be…” Dad interrupted, “If they see you in the boot, they won’t suspect, they’ll know.” Siva Uncle got into the back of the car.

Siva Uncle was a friend of my dad. A Tamil as his name suggests. He had just to moved to Colombo from Jaffna three months earlier, so his Sinhalese language proficiency was only basic. We spoke to him in English most of the time. But my mum suddenly asked him in Sinhalese, “Are you Sinhalese or Tamil?” Siva Uncle replied in Sinhalese, “I’m Sinhalese.” Mom said, “The accent is still not perfect. Please say it again. Everything could depend on it.” He said it a few more times. Then they moved on to other, longer phrases. Within five minutes, Siva Uncle knew how to say, “Yes, I agree that we should kick the Tamils out of the country” in Sinhalese.

We proceeded. Siva Uncle said a few times, “I don’t know if Kamala is alright.” Kamala Aunty was his pregnant wife in Jaffna. He had just married her a year earlier and left for Colombo against her will, citing greater economic opportunities in Colombo. He was supposed to stay in Colombo for a few years, make enough money, send back enough of it, and then eventually go back to Jaffna. A simple plan, but it was suddenly in serious jeopardy.

Luckily, we managed to bring Siva Uncle home without any interruption or interrogation by the rowdies. Once we got home, Siva Uncle was anxious to contact Kamala as soon as possible. Our home did not have a phone (most homes in Sri Lanka did not at that time). Dad suggested, “I have an idea, but it’s a bit risky. We need to leave our house for a while. You said Kamala’s neighbour has a phone. My elder brother works nearby. We can go to his office and make the call. Don’t worry, we’ll get you there quickly and get you back quickly.”

Mum said, “No, Mahinda. Don’t take the risk. We’ve gone through so much to bring Siva home. Don’t let it go to waste.” Dad spent a few moments in thoughtful silence, and then said, “In that case, there’s only one thing I can think of. I’ll go on my own and call Kamala. What would you like me to tell her? You want her to come here or go anywhere else? Or just stay in Jaffna?” Siva Uncle replied, “There are refugee camps being established all over the country, including Jaffna. Tell her to go to one of those camps near Jaffna.”

Dad drove off to make the call. Those thirty minutes were hell. Though I was only ten years old, I could understand how it felt when a loved one was at risk. We were all quietly praying that dad would return with good news.

When dad got back, Siva Uncle asked agitatedly, “What happened? Did you speak to Kamala?” There was a deafening silence as we waited for the answer. Dad said, “No, but…” We all screamed, “But what?!!” Dad then broke the news. “She’s not in Jaffna. I spoke to your neighbour Mr Salim, and he said Kamala has taken a flight to Madras along with a few hundred other Tamils. She’s safe there!”

Siva Uncle hugged dad. We enjoyed unlimited relief. Siva Uncle then went up to a statue of Buddha we had, touched it, and then touched both his eyes.

Dad then elaborated, “Kamala is in a refugee camp near Madras. Once you go there, both of you will be safe. Now we need to get you to Madras.” Mum said, “Yes, but let’s wait a day or two for the violence to die down.”

The next day, something we dreaded happened. A couple of large, armed men knocked on our door and asked the inevitable question, “Are you Sinhalese or Tamil?” Dad gave a reply which has stayed in my mind ever since. I still give the same answer whenever anyone asks me if I’m Sinhalese or Tamil. Dad said, “I’m a Sri Lankan.”

The tragedy of Sri Lanka is that this answer has never been sufficient. These intruders were not satisfied with the answer. They kept repeating the question. My mom then asked an interesting question. She said, “You can’t tell the difference between a Sinhalese and a Tamil unless you ask them, but you still kill people based on that difference?”

One of the rowdies bellowed, “I’m not here for a philosophical discussion. Don’t quote dhammapadha (Buddhist scriptures) here. Tell me if you’re Sinhalese or Tamil.”

If my dad had told him his name was Mahinda Gunasinghe and we were Sinhalese, the next natural step would have been searching the house, finding Siva Uncle in one of the rooms and demanding what he was doing there? Was he related to us, was he my dad’s brother, or worst of all, was he a Tamil to whom we had given shelter? Sensing this, my dad did something I least expected. He said, “My name is Mahendran Gunasingam.”

Hearing this Tamil name, the two rowdies charged in on him. My dad blocked both of them with a skilful maneuvre. He punched one of them in the neck and kicked the other in the underbelly. With a series of quick, dexterous maneuvres, he battered the rowdies into submission. As the rowdies ran away, dad said, “Come to Dehiwala Karate School! I’ve been Chief Instructor there for the past eight years!”

Siva Uncle came out of one of the rooms, and cried, “Mahinda, why did you put your life at risk for me?” Dad replied, “It takes much more than those two creatures to put my life at risk. You know very well what I do for a living!”

Based on the news in the radio, we sensed that the tensions had died down over the next two days. On 28th July, Siva Uncle left our home, giving me a kiss and hug before he left. Mom told me Siva Uncle was going to Madras to reunite with Kamala Aunty. She also added that Canada had offered to give asylum to the Tamils, and Siva and Kamala would soon leave Madras for Toronto. I asked mum, “What is meant by giving asylum to the Tamils?” Mum smiled wistfully, perhaps envious of my blissful ignorance. She said, “It means the Tamils can go to a country where they will be treated as humans.”

Later, we received the good news that Siva Uncle and Kamala Aunty had made it to Toronto without any hurdles. 25 years on, they are still happy and peaceful in Toronto. They are Canadian citizens, and both their sons are engineers. They go out on the streets knowing they won’t be arrested. They go to temples knowing they will return safely. They look to the skies for the stars, not for the planes. They can safely guess that they and their loved ones will be alive in an hour’s time.

I’m 25 years older now. In 1983, I had a lot of questions. Why should we kill someone for speaking a different language or worshipping a different god? Why did we, my dad, my mum, have humaneness while others did not? How is someone treated as a human being in all countries except his own? Many things were strange to me. 25 years later, they still are.