Statues, History and Rationality
“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of
others.”– John F. Kennedy
Charlottesville and the aftermath brought up in me a seeded memory, which long buried, recently emerged from the the dusty recesses of my mind. This memory tests my near familial relationships – not as a Unionist or a Confederate – but as a person with Indian roots funnily enough.
Although, I’ve visited America countless times since I was born, it was mainly New Jersey where my parents hand Indian friends. But, when I was about fifteen, we went to Marietta, Georgia, just outside Atlanta, to do the same.
Our hosts, the Bose or Basu family seemed far happier in the USA than in Canada where the Canadian company that employed head of family, Kalyan, had relocated their lab. Why wouldn’t they be? They had a much bigger house, and more money – and seemed to have bought into the ethos of the South.
‘You have to see the sound and light show,’ they – Kalyan and wife Dolly implored us as we made our touristy plans.
‘Why?’ I’d asked.
‘So you can learn the history of the Civil War among other things.’
I’d told them I knew enough – that it was about slavery.
NOT SO – my pseudo uncle insisted. It was about cultural difference: the South had developed a distinct identity from the North, and the two wanted, nay, needed a divorce.
‘Surely slavery was the main issue,’ I insisted.
‘What…do you think these northerners were enlightened egalitarians? Their industrial economies did not rely upon slaves, so they could do without them. But the agrarian economy of the South was different. Had there been parity between the economies, everybody would have been in favour of slavery!’
I listened, thinking that Kalyan Uncle had drank the Kool-Aid. It helped them keep their McMansion in Marrietta, and it helped him, the bread-winner get along with his bosses. After all, as a brown engineer, and needed to fit in.
For long it has struck me that Indians, the world over from South Africa to the UK to the American South could differentiate themselves from the scions of Africa by rationalizing the philosophy of white racists. I mean, our skin is not generally as dark; we don’t have crinkly hair; and we have a sophisticated ancient heritage, whereas, they are savages. – Right? So, if whites throw us a bone, oh, let’s chomp on it. This is, by the way, a long tradition, for no less than Mahatma Gandhi refused to take up the cause of blacks in South Africa. According to some accounts, he even frowned upon intermarriage between Indians and blacks.
Back to the statues. Most of these statues, Robert Lee’s included were not built during the time of the confederacy – but much later during the era of Jim Crow laws and the height of the KKK to intimidate blacks, put them in their place. Is it no wonder that this dark part of American history, in an age of a eight years of a black president would need to be taken down?
According to Donald J. Trump, alongside the neo-Nazis and white supremacists, are genuine history buffs. People who know one kind of history.
To put this in a South Asian perspective, I was at a literary festival in Bangladesh in which a writer read from a story, which had been drawn from her grandmother’s memory. A Muslim in British India and a student at a school with a Hindu headmaster, she had forgotten her notebook at his house when undergoing tuition. When the headmaster found the book, he not only beat her but ‘sanitized’ his house with cow dung.
Now, I cannot verify the veracity of this story as it has been passed down for generations.
I had heard similar stories about my Grandfather, a doctor, who, owing to our vast lands in Chittagong, did not need money to practice.
He had an obstacle, though, for during most of the second World War, anesthesia was only rationed to British doctors or those in the Indian Army. My Grandfather had his own methods. He used herbs, and told stories. My father recounted witnessing an appendicitis operation in which my grandfather’s story had so lifted the patient’s consciousness out of the plane of his pain, that the operation was performed without a whimper, much less a scream.
My grandfather practiced so, for free in many villages, the populations of which were 90% Muslim.
So, after his untimely death and our part of the Earth became East Pakistan, in which my family were determined to stay – being ‘son’s of the soil’ for generations, they got a rude shock in 1949. My uncle: the husband of my father’s eldest sister, who felt secure in his 10 year job as headmaster of a school, was taken from his office and slaughtered in the street by a Muslim mob.
It was almost as though he was paying for the sins of the headmaster of the grandmother of that Bangladeshi writer to whom I’d referred earlier in this piece.
While in Bangladesh, I didn’t have the courage to tell this story, for within a month of my departure, Hindu writers were being hacked to death in that country.
The incident is not incidental: it prompted my family’s departure from East Pakistan to India, as near as refugees as one could imagine because as our power diminished, so did our claims to property, lands, etc.
One might think, the history, would make me hate Muslims as the American Hindu supporters of Trump seem to do. Had I been brought up in South Asia, instead of in the UK and Canada, my perspective might be different. But in North America, we were all brown people, facing the same obstacles. In fact, I was a good friend of the grand daughter of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy who is responsible for the deaths of many Hindus in Calcutta during Muhammed Ali Jinnah’s day of ‘Direct Action’ prior to Indian independence. We were both just ‘Desis’ trying to make our way in a predominantly white country.
The real issue here is myth vs. fact. The way the Bose or Basu family bought into the myth of the South is akin to the way money – or the promise of it can make anyone buy into anything. It was similar to the Maharastian cardiologist from Alabama whom I met at a wedding – and who voted for Bush twice because of the tax cuts. “If W isn’t re-elected, I can’t see how I’ll be able to afford the new extension on my house’ That was his priority – and the priority of so many Indians who vote Republican.
Back to Charlottesville:
For generations, elements in the South have been trying to re-write history. I witnessed it in Atlanta after being forced to sit through a stupid propaganda tool called the Sound and Light Show.
Prior to that that, this gentle grandfather, Ronald Reagan mastered dog-whistle politics in the south to garner the Barry Goldwater constituents. People consider him to be a great president but his politics were no less racist than Trump’s. I suppose Trump is just an incredibly dumbed down version of Reagan. As my fingers type this, I can scarcely believe that I have to use such words. The point is: this has been going on a long time.
Since my Marietta, Georgia experience, I’ve lived and worked in the US, having client assignments across the entire eastern seaboard. I always felt welcome, and it was professionally rewarding.
I only hope when the struggle is over, the US Constitution and its founding principles will prevail – and the people will read that document. A grand rechristening of those great principles will go a long way to making America great again as it was in the 18th and 19th and the early 20th centuries.
If America can come out of this existential struggle, reaffirming its core principles at a time of complex global quandary, the World over will take notice, and begin again to admire the qualities that truly make America great.